A Memoir from Western New Guinea

While all these thoughts rolled through my head, Gil was sitting on the bed beside Jake. I resumed our conversation as if I was never absent in mind.

“It’s a bitter irony to be felled by a stroke here after surviving danger in Papua.”

“We are waiting for tests,” Gil said. “He might’ve been poisoned like another colleague.”

“Poisoned here?” I couldn’t believe an assassin was lurking in New York.

We left for a quick bite at a diner off Seventh where we sat in a quiet corner and ordered steaming bowls of lentil soup. The warmth helped to melt the wariness of strangers. I wanted to know more about Jake’s work and the struggle for independence. Gil leaned back in the booth to wipe his spectacles and collect his thoughts.

“We were in DC for an award the night before he fell ill. We thought human rights in our land would get attention at last. It’s a long story few people here know or care about.”

Market day in the mountains

I knew the threads of history: how Dutch New Guinea was preparing for independence when General Suharto annexed it, how at the height of the Cold War the West turned a blind eye because his regime was a bastion against communist insurgency. There was a multilateral agreement supposed to safeguard the rights of indigenous people by a plebiscite, but it was a sham and merely switched Papua from a Dutch to an Indonesian colony. Political dissidents fled or joined OPM bush fighters, no match for the army or the more-feared paramilitaries who made punitive raids on villages. No one knew for sure how many people died in those decades, and I didn’t ask for grisly stories.

“Indonesia is now a democracy and its army withdrew from East Timor. Why not Papua next?”

Gil sighed. “We are a long way from Jakarta. There’s a limit to what even a good prime minister can do, and the West won’t put pressure on a friendly and moderate Muslim nation.”

“I guess the mine is a big problem, the one that got Jake into trouble. No one should go hungry or homeless in a country that rich.” I found the gold mine on Google Earth, a dirty ochre stain in place of a green baize for tribal homelands. Apart from token support of local communities, the wealth was exported for American stockholders and government coffers in Jakarta. I was more than angry, I was heart-broken at losing Eden.

“Mmm. The mine too,” he said.

A few weeks later, Jake moved out of the hospital to a friend’s home a few blocks away. His physical recovery was painfully slow and the ‘Voice of his People’ was now aphasic despite dedicated effort by therapists.

After I moved away it was hard to contact him, but the following winter I called ahead to meet in the Village. I stood in a pool of light outside a diner on the sidewalk and examined every black man who passed. Finally, one emerged out of the shadows, his teeth gleaming in the light and hand attempting a wave. He sauntered into my embrace.

“How are you?” I asked. He felt strong again, but could he speak?

“Fine,” he rasped. That was his only word, but nods and smiles are fine communication between friends.

“How’s your medication?”


I heard his stroke was not from any act of malice, but a complication of an infection caught in Papua for which he needed retroviral drugs. I never forgot the poignancy.

The End

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